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New Zealander pilot's fate unclear as insurgents launch offensive in West papua

James town - February 21, 2024

By Irma Rahim

Executive Summary

  • Egianus Kogoya, a West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) commander, is holding a New Zealand pilot hostage and threatening to execute him unless West Papua wins its independence, though the movement's leadership has disagreed with this hardline stance.
  • Over the course of two months, TPNPB militants carried out numerous attacks against Indonesian military and civilian targets, resulting in at least 15 deaths.
  • The situation is complicated by Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo's recent visit to West Papua and internal disagreements within the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP).

In a video published on November 21, 2023, Egianus Kogoya, an important leader of the West Papuan independence movement, called on the international community to initiate negotiations to release a New Zealander pilot, Philipp Mehrtens. Mehrtens has been in captivity since February 7, 2023. Egianus is the commander of the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) for Regional Defence Command III (KODAP III) Nderakma Ndugama in the Nduga Region. If these negotiations did not begin, Egianus threatened to execute the pilot, suggesting that international organizations should hold Indonesia responsible for the pilot's death. Egianus claimed he would also kill the pilot if the Indonesian government and military did not recognize the independence of West Papua (DISWAY.id, November 21, 2023; LIPUTAN6, November 21, 2023).

Through the video, Egianus aimed to achieve three objectives. The first of these was to justify a series of assaults carried out in the days preceding December 1, celebrated as the anniversary of the West Papuan movement's declaration of independence from Indonesia in 1963 (The Papua Journal, December 1, 2023). Secondly, Egianus wanted to redirect the attention of local media from the visit to Papua made by Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo from November 21-24. Instead, Egianus hoped to focus attention on the TPNPB's recent attacks against Indonesian military, police, and civilians (Cabinet Secretariat of the Republic of Indonesia, November 22, 2023). Thirdly, he wanted to divert international attention away from the ongoing internal power struggle within the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP). This involved a dispute between former chairman Benny Wenda, who wanted to retake his position as the group's leader, and Menash Tabuni, who opposes Benny's proposed plan to run a temporary West Papuan government from Oxford in the United Kingdom (SuaraPapua.com, November 20, 2023). The ULMWP's internal power struggle will strengthen the TPNPB's position as the most legitimate military wing of the West Papuan independence movement, weakening the ULMWP's own military wing, known as the West Papua Army (WPA) (ULMWP, July 1, 2019). In addition, Egianus reasserted his rejection of the TPNPB-OPM leaders' demand that he release the New Zealander pilot (BBC, December 28, 2023; Tribun-Papua, January 31).

Ultimately, Egianus accomplished each of his objectives. From November 24, 2023 (the final day of Jokowi's visit to Papua) until January 29, 2024, the TPNPB conducted several attacks. These violent assaults instilled terror among villagers and shifted the local narrative away from both the intended positive outcomes of Jokowi's visit and the internal conflict within the ULMWP. This also underlined Egianus's demand to the West that nothing short of West Papuan independence will open the door to Mehrtens's release.

A week of deadly attacks

Less than two weeks before West Papua's independence anniversary, Benny successfully rallied 5,000 people to support his re-election as the ULMWP's chairman and to attend his own ULMWP conference. Benny dismissed his previous appointment as the movement's chief of foreign affairs at the ULMWP conference in Vanuatu last August. He reasoned that maintaining his position would validate the ULMWP's decision to dissolve the West Papuan government, which Benny established in 2018 and for which he claims to be president-in-exile (RNZ, November 21, 2023; Asia Pacific Report, November 25, 2023). Egianus used the opportunity to gather more international attention for himself and his wing of the movement, given that he retained possession of the hostage New Zealander pilot (detik news, February 17, 2018; SuaraPapua.com, January 2, 2020; KOMPAS.com, February 17, 2023).

Taking advantage of Egianus's renewed public threat to execute Mehrtens, Egianus's Ndullamo Battalion launched an attack on five medical facility construction workers on November 24, 2023. Egianus's forces were led by Aibon E. Kogeya. Police had previously ordered the workers to halt construction in anticipation of TPNPB attacks before December 1 – a warning that went unheeded. Aibon accused the workers of being military spies, subsequently killing three of them (SuaraPapua.com, February 3, 2022; Jubi.id, November 27, 2023; KOMPAS.com, November 30, 2023).

The following day, Perek Jelas Kogeya, commander of operations for KODAP III Ndugama Darakma, launched an assault on the military post in Paro District in support of Egianus and Aibon. This is notable because the New Zealander pilot was abducted in Paro District. The attack also emphasizes the TPNPB's claim of being the sole legitimate West Papuan militant wing (Sagu News, September 9, 2023). TPNPB spokesperson Sebby Sambo refuted the Indonesian military's claims that government forces only suffered four deaths and two injuries (one critical). He likewise denied that other soldiers had been evacuated by helicopter (KOMPAS.com, November 28, 2023). Sebby, in contrast, asserted that the TPNPB fired upon the helicopter itself, claiming the lives of eight Indonesian soldiers. The TPNPB, according to Sebby, will launch attacks until Jakarta enters negotiations over the group's hostage (SuaraPapua, November 27, 2023; DISWAY.id, November 28, 2023).

The next attack was on November 30, when Vice Military Commander Manfred Fatem and his militants from KODAP IV Sorong Maybrat carried out an hour-long assault on Ayata village. This resulted in the deaths of three Indonesian soldiers. The Indonesian military, however, denied Manfred Fatem's claims and stated that no soldiers were killed (Jubi.id, December 4, 2023). Apart from inciting widespread panic, the attack was designed to deliver a message to native Papuans who had recently enlisted in the Indonesian military and police. Moreover, Sebby used this operation to issue an additional statement warning that the government focus less on the ongoing situation in Palestine and toward West Papuan self-determination. Later in the day, TPNPB KODAP III attacked the Paro military post once again, resulting in the deaths of two more Indonesian soldiers. These numbers were also confirmed by the Indonesian military (okenews, December 1, 2023; SuaraPapua, December 2, 2023).

Honoring West Papuan independence day

On December 1, each of the 36 TPNPB KODAP brigades ceased attacks. They instead observed West Papuan Independence Day by raising the movement's Morning Star flag. As a part of this ceremony, Sebby briefed the group on the accomplishments of the TPNPB during their week of assaults on the military posts, urging the group's forces to continue to attack government forces (tempo.co, November 29, 2023; SuaraPapua, December 2, 2023). He also declared that he wanted the United Nations, international community, and Indonesian government to know that the TPNPB is the "West Papua[n] military." Sebby argued that he and his forces stand with Papuans to fight the illegal Indonesian colonization of their land. Sebby also doubled down on the claim that his countrymen were betrayed by the 1962 United Nations' New York Agreement. He blamed the United States, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Australia supporting the transfer of then-West New Guinea to Indonesia on May 1, 1963, through the contentious "Act of Free Choice" (SuaraPapua, July 26, 2019, May 27, 2022; seputarpapua.com, December 1, 2023). Benny Wenda, unlike Sebby Sambo, is unconcerned about foreign media attention and is mostly preoccupied with his credibility within the ULMWP (Jubi.id, November 30, 2023).

While Jokowi, Egianus, Benny, and Sebby disagree on much, they all agree on the significance of December 1 for West Papua. Jokowi, for his part, continues to try to resolve the conflict through negotiation. The president relies on Bupati Nduga, who has a family relationship with Egianus. Receiving the "green light" for further attacks from Sebby Sambo's messages, the TPNPB's Manfred Fatem and his militants launched another attack on December 25, 2023. He and his men shot ten bullets at a military post located in Bousha village after canceling their Christmas celebration. The Indonesian military confirmed the injuries of one Indonesian soldier and the death of another during Manfreed's attack (TribunPadang, December 25, 2023). On December 26, Egianus again rejected demands from the TPNPB's leadership to release Mehrtens. He also uploaded a new photograph of the New Zealander pilot and reissued his previous threats (detik news, December 26, 2023). Sebby Sambo, however, was dissatisfied with the release of the photo, as the decision was not communicated to the headquarters of TPNPB – OPM in advance (BBC, December 28, 2023).

January attacks

Brigadier General Undius Kogeya of the TPNPB's KODAP VIII Intan Jaya launched the first assault of 2024. The fatal attack commenced on January 19 and continued until January 23. The January 19 attack at Kampung Bilogai, Sugapa District resulted in the death of one Indonesian soldier. The assault also targeted various military posts, and on January 23, the fighters fired on civilian aircraft, causing killing five and injuring two (LIPUTAN6, January 26). Approximately 500 Sugapa District residents were forced to evacuate due to the attacks (KOMPAS.com, January 25; The Papua Journal, January 27).

Concurrent with these attacks, the Indonesian military conducted an investigation into the fatal assault carried out by TPNPB KODAP IV on December 25. A military informant claimed that two couriers intended to provide KODAP IV Sorong Maybrat with logistical support. The military consequently initiated surveillance of the Maybrat region on January 21, arresting the two couriers on January 22. Following an interrogation of the couriers, the military conducted a raid on the TPNPB KODAP IV Sorong Maybrat on January 25 (iNews Papua, January 30). Government troops failed to capture the rebel forces or their commander, Manfred Fatem – both he and his men escaped as a result of information leaks – but were nevertheless able to destroy the brigade's headquarters and a cache of weaponry (VIVA.co, January 30). Sebby Sambo claimed that the Indonesian military's use of mortars destroyed five houses during the raid (The Papua Journal, January 29).

Soon after those clashes, on January 29, Brigadier General Undius Kogeya, commander of TPNPB KODAP VIII Intan Jaya, stormed the Intan Jaya regional head's office. On January 31, Egianus's fighters shot at a helicopter transporting the head of the Nduga region, who had been sent by Jokowi to negotiate with Eganius (papua.tribunnews, January 31). Nevertheless, on January 31, Sebby Sambo issued a statement claiming that TPNPB – OPM central command would release the New Zealander pilot without requiring negotiations with Indonesia and New Zealand (papua.tribunnews, January 31). According to Sebby, the decision to release Mehrtens should lie solely with TPNPB – OPM central command, which does not agree with Egianus's stance that the pilot's release must be contingent upon West Papua gaining its independence (Jubi.id, February 5; SuaraPapua.com, February 4). On February 5, TPNPB Kodap XVI Yahukimo, commanded by Brigadier General Elkius Kobak, attacked a military post in Dekai, resulting in the deaths of four individuals. According to Sebby, three of these individuals were military officers, with the fourth being an intelligence officer (Jubi.id, February 6). Meanwhile, Jeffrey Bosmanak – the chairman of OPM, and someone who Sebby has had disputes with – issued a Facebook statement asking the TPNPB to ignore Sebby statement and support Egianus's more hardline position (DISWAY.id, February 6).

New Zealand's Minister of Foreign Affairs called for Mehrtens's release on February 5, though hardline stances and infighting within the TPNPB – OPM make such a move unlikely at present. Just before Christmas 2023, the pilot was, however, able to communicate with his family. This may have prompted New Zealand's ambassador to Indonesia to visit Papua on February 6 (RNZ, February 6).Conclusion

Jokowi will leave office in October 2024. To date, he has not won over the hearts and minds of the TPNPB or the ULMWP, though he has achieved popularity among the region's population (detik news, January 17). If a majority of the population of Papua demonstrate their support for Jokowi's policies with regards to the West Papuan separatist movement, Egianus might be forced to release the New Zealander pilot. This is not impossible, given the wide margins by which Jokowi won both of his elections in the Papuan provinces. As such Mehrtens's fate continues to be decided by the intersection of politics and militancy in Papua.

Source: https://jamestown.org/program/new-zealander-pilots-fate-unclear-as-insurgents-launch-offensive-in-west-papua